Automated semi-trucks to take test-drive on El Paso roads

Automated vehicles being tested across the nation will make their way to El Paso.

There are several versions of the technology, but one major focus in Texas is "truck platooning," which is being tested by Texas A&M Transportation Institute in partnership with the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT).

Dr. Christopher Poe, assistant director of connected and automated transportation strategy at Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI) told KFOX14 about the extensive study and testing and shared video of test runs in a controlled testing area.

Two semi trucks are seen in the video linked through hybrid cruise control equipment with radar, cameras and other technology. The combination allows the trailing vehicle to follow the lead truck safely while the second driver monitors the system and has the ability to take control if necessary.

“There's long stretches of driving that the automation can help with. It allows for great fuel efficiency for the trucks and helps drivers to be safer than they are today,” said Poe.

A coalition has been created in Texas which includes other universities, cities and regions to help push for funding and national approval through the United States Department of Transportation (USDOT) to become a "proving ground" state, which would allow the testing of this technology on open roads.

The coalition includes TTI, the University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Transportation Research (CTR), and Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) now known as the Texas Automated Vehicle Proving Ground Partnership.

The group applied for approval in December and received official designation Thursday from the outgoing administration before the inauguration, which Dr. Poe said they were hoping for in order to move forward quickly.

“Texas is doing a good job trying to position the state to be a real leader in this area, so by creating this statewide initiative where we pull together seven different urban areas, 32 different agencies and three of the top research organizations in the state, we think we can not only help this technology and the overall economy in Texas but be a national resource for automated technology across the country,” said Poe.

This approval will now allow the group to set up testing sites on the open road in order to put the technology up against real life scenarios and the group has identified different locations throughout Texas.

They have selected five cities in Texas as proving grounds, including El Paso. The others are Austin, Houston, Dallas and San Antonio. The El Paso testing site would be at the Tornillo port of entry.

“It's one of the largest border crossings in the U.S. and has a lot of room to potentially test how automated vehicles would help with mobility, safety and security,” said Poe.

While there's support for the technology, some oppose the idea. A semi truck driver passing through El Paso is one of them.

Raphael Arnold, who has been a semi truck driver for two years, said the current technology available is enough and he doesn’t believe truck platooning will make roads safer.

“A human can see better and react better to the situation than a computer. A computer is only as smart as the person who put it into the machine. I don’t think it’ll make the road safer,” he said.

Poe said that is a valid concern as testing continues, though he pointed out that test runs have been very successful and that’s why the next step is to test it in real-world scenarios.

It will take years before the technology is available to the public, however, now that the state has been designated as a proving ground, testing will start next January.

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